On a day when three other titles went to athletes who were the favourites, or among the leading candidates, Kenya’s Japhet Korir provided the one genuine surprise in taking the senior men’s title at the 2013 IAAF World Cross Country Championships on Sunday (24), pocketing a cheque of US$30,000.
Korir, in only his third race in the last nine months after getting badly spiked in the Kenyan trials for the 2012 IAAF World Junior Championships last June, also become the youngest ever senior champion and only the second teenager to win the long race, following in the footsteps of the prodigious Kenenisa Bekele.
He consistently to the fore after the race started to hot up after the halfway point and then pushed hard in the final kilometre to gradually edge away from Ethiopia’s defending champion Imane Merga.
Korir crossed the line after 12km of running, with the icy course getting ever more difficult to navigate after three previous races, in 32:45 with Merga six seconds in arrears.
It was a valiant defence by Merga but in the end, he had no answer to Korir when the latter pushed hard for home with just under a kilometre remaining.
The pace was a relatively sedentary 5:40 at the end of the first 2km lap, compared to 5:24 for the junior men, but improved a little on the a second lap at 4km was covered in 11:09. Nevertheless a large group of 17 runners was still together a third of the way into the race.
The pace remained steady up to the halfway point as the next two kilometres was covered by the leaders in 5:23 but the group dwindled to nine.
Korir and Uganda’s Timothy Torotich continued to be the driving forces on the fourth lap and by 8km the group had been reduced to six: Korir, Merga, Torotich and his well-known compatriot Moses Kipsiro, Eritrea’s Teklemariam Medhin and Australia’s Collis Birmingham, the latter literally shadowing the rest from the rear of the six-man group due to his stature.
The US runner Ben True, having the race of his life, joined the group midway the penultimate lap while, by contrast, Birmingham started to fade at the bell, with 10km reached in a very fast 27:17.
Medhin saw the indicator for one lap to go from the front but soon ceased to be a factor in the race for the gold medal, as did the two Ugandans, as Korir and Merga started their own private battle for supremacy in the 11th kilometre.
However, the tiring Merga threw in the towel in the last lap and visibly settled for second place about 200m from the line letting Korir, just sixth in the Kenyan trials last month and the last man to be named to the team after his fitness issues since the summer, cruise to victory.
Medhin, three years after winning the silver medal in the same city, took the bronze on this occasion in 32:54, closing the gap on Merga in the final few hundred metres as the latter eased off the accelerator.
The three medallists were followed home by Kipsiro and Torotich as the surprising True finished sixth.
Merga may have lost his individual crown but he got some compensation as Ethiopia won the team contest for the first time since 2005, after six consecutive Kenyan victories.
Ethiopia put together a total of 38 points, with their other three scorers lead by top marathon runner Feyisa Lilesa in ninth place. Abera Chane and Tesfaye Abera in 13th and 14th place might have been expecting to have been having had silver medals hung around the necks but their placings were high enough to win gold with the second highest score since the ‘six-to-run, four-to-score’ rule was introduced to the senior men’s race in 1998.
Thanks to True’s effort, the best American placing in the senior men’s race since 1984, and getting four men in the top 19, USA won a surprising silver medal, their first time on the podium in a men’s race since 2001.
Kenya finished third with 54 points, the first time they had not taken the gold or silver medals since 1984 with 54 points with Korir, amazingly for a country that has been so dominant over the last 25 years, their only runner in the top 10.
Phil Minshull for the IAAF